The peace that results in war
Sermon based on Luke 12:49-53 | Pastor Ryan Cortright
Today is one of those occasions when it feels a bit strange to say, “The gospel of our Lord” after the Gospel reading. You probably know that we use the word “gospel” in two ways at church. The most basic sense of the word “gospel” is “good news.” If I say, “Believe the gospel” I mean the good news that Jesus died and rose for you.
The second way we use the word “Gospel” in church is to refer to the first four books of the New Testament; the books that relate the life and ministry of Jesus. We call these four books; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the four Gospels. They tell the story of the good news and record the very words of Jesus. In church we stand to honor Jesus when we hear the Gospel reading.
But sometimes our reading from the Gospel does not contain good news. Sometimes what Jesus has to tell us is not what we would classify as gospel. “I came to throw fire on the earth,” is not quite as warm and comforting as, “I came to seek and to save what was lost.” But both came from the mouth of our Lord; both are deserving of our attention. Jesus wants his followers to have peace in him, but he also does not want us to be ignorant of the fact that peace in Jesus will result in war.
These are hard words. What Jesus says is not just hard to believe; they are hard to understand. That’s why I want to spend our time today unpacking the three main statements that we heard Jesus say. We’ll take them one-by-one.
I already mentioned the first one; “I came to throw fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already ignited.” We’d all much rather picture Jesus as our Good Shepherd; staff in one hand, a little lamb in the crook of his other arm, than picture Jesus with a gas can and a match, ready to start something on fire. The truth is that we cannot have the one without the other. Fire both destroys and refines. Jesus is both Savior and judge and as judge he cannot tolerate evil. This is a side of Jesus we often ignore or, at the very least, play down. The fire Jesus talks about here he will bring when he returns again as judge over all. The fact that he hasn’t returned with his fire of judgment is evidence of his patience and mercy. But make no mistake, the day will come when Jesus will throw fire on this earth and there will be no escape for those who are found still in their sins.
In his first statement Jesus mentions fire. In his second, he brings up baptism. But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is finished! When we hear baptism we think, “Water.” That’s not a bad thought, except that there are several times when Jesus uses the word “baptism” to mean something that you must undergo. We know he isn’t talking about his own baptism by John in the Jordan River because by the time he spoke these words that had already happened. Jesus had already stepped into that river and had the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove while the Father spoke from heaven. But there is a connection here to that first baptism of Jesus. When he was baptized by John, Jesus was stepping into the place of sinners. He became our substitute and as the one who stands in our place before God, he would also carry on himself the guilt and sin of this world. Because of this substitution, he would have another baptism to endure; the baptism of God’s wrath coming upon him on his cross.
This, of course, is the gospel, the good news! But see in Jesus’ words here that this was no easy thing. Sometimes I think we imagine that since Jesus is God, it really was not big deal that he had to endure suffering and hell itself on the cross. Afterall, he knew he would make it out on the other end.
But we see the truth here. Jesus was no machine just going through the actions. He is human. He knows what it is to carry an impossible burden. He knows what it is to be distressed and tired and ready to be done. He knows the temptations toward despair and the questions that a person under stress hurls towards God, “Why? Why are you making me go through this?” And if Jesus knows what that is, then he also certainly can relate to you when you feel that way.
We also see that Jesus had no easy path to walk and if we want to follow him, we shouldn’t expect that our path would be easy either. That’s why he said the next hard thing that we need to hear: Do you think that I came to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.
Of all the things Jesus says, this may be the easiest to understand but the hardest to believe. That’s because when we think of Jesus we probably think of peace; Jesus came to bring peace! That’s what the angels sang about on the night of his birth, “Peace on earth; goodwill toward men.” That’s what Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace I give to you, my peace I leave you.” So what is Jesus talking about here? Jesus most certainly came to bring peace: the peace of forgiveness; peace between God and sinners; the peace of knowing in the deepest recesses of our souls that, in the end, everything is going to be OK.
But Jesus doesn’t want us to have the illusion that the peace that he came to bring us would mean that we should expect peace on this earth. In fact, he says the opposite is true. Those who find peace with Jesus should expect to find division with this world.
This shouldn’t surprise us, though. Afterall, if we go way back to the very beginning and listen in as God spoke to the serpent who had just deceived our first parents; God told the Devil: I will put enmity between you and the women, between your offspring and hers… The fall into sin not only marked the entrance of death into God’s perfect world. It also brought war and division; enmity, into a world God created with peace. That’s why Saint Paul could picture the life of a Christian as a soldier equipped to stand out on the battlefield.
But the war isn’t one far away that we watch updates about on TV. It’s true that right now, Christians in China are being cracked down. It's true that in some nations, Christians risk their lives every day for the sake of Christ. But the war is much closer to home. It’s in our homes and wages within families. He says a father will be divided against his son and daughter against her mother. The closest bonds of family divided by Jesus.
Why does Jesus give us this warning? He doesn’t want us to be surprised when it happens. For many of you, one of the heaviest crosses you carry as a Christian is knowing that your son or daughter, your grandson or granddaughter, who you raised to know Jesus, no longer wants anything to do with him. Christmas Eve ought to be a joyful night, but now it’s marked by the tension of whether or not the whole family will be attending church that evening. Conversations about faith are off-limits and the thing that ought to unite us as one has become a cause of deep division.
The divisions we see in our families are constant reminders that this world is still broken. This world needs Jesus. How ought we navigate those divisions that exist within our own families?
First, we live, not as those on a warpath, looking for someone to tear down because they aren’t Christian, but as those who are filled with joy; the kind of joy that remains unshaken in life’s hardest moments.
Next, we give no reason for accusation of hypocrisy. If our faith in Jesus divides us from people we love then so be it, only let it be our faith in Jesus and not our hypocrisy that they can’t stand. Where we have fallen short of Christ’s calling, we acknowledge it and ask for forgiveness.
Finally, we pray. We pray that God would use our witness and words to accomplish his purpose. We pray for patience; knowing that we may never live to see the fruits of our efforts. We also pray for strength to bear this cross of division.
Jesus’ words today remind us that peace with him will result in war in this world. This is not a war that we wage on the terms of this world, but as those who have been delivered from death itself through our Lord Jesus. It is a war that has already been won. We stand victorious in Jesus. We stand only by the power of his Word. We stand in the promise made to us in our baptism and brought to our lips in his supper. Dear Christians, stand in his word today that you may stand with him forever. The victory is yours in Jesus! This is the gospel of our Lord. Amen.